Many of the recruiters who came to Chicago's Mount Carmel High in the fall of 1993 to evaluate quarterback Donovan McNabb saw the same qualities: size, speed and an arm so erratic that it might never power a college passing game. Nebraska was willing to take a chance on the speedy 6'2", 213-pound quarterback; after all, Tommie Frazier didn't really learn to throw until he got to Lincoln. And Syracuse assistant coach George DeLeone saw something, too. "When the lights went on," says DeLeone, "this guy would play big."
Three years later, having decided Nebraska was too deep at quarterback for him, McNabb is entering his sophomore season at Syracuse (he redshirted in '94), and the lights are on. Boy, are they on. After the Orangemen finished 6-4-1 in 1993 and 7-4 in '94, they went 9-3 last fall, including a 41-0 starching of Clemson in the Gator Bowl, Fifteen starters are back, and Syracuse's principal Big East rivals, Virginia Tech and Miami, must visit the Carrier Dome this fall, "I feel very good about where we are right now," says Orangemen coach Paul Pasqualoni, a man who ordinarily treats high expectation as if it were a mug of sour milk.
It is McNabb, most of all, who gives Syracuse cause to make January plans. He didn't win the starting job last season until the week of the season opener, but once installed, McNabb, who was a reserve on the Syracuse basketball team that went to last spring's NCAA title game, blossomed into a multidimensional force perfect for running Syracuse's complex option offense. He threw for 1,991 yards and 16 touchdowns, with just six interceptions, and rushed for 261 yards and two more scores. "If you give him time, he'll make a big play; if you don't give him time, he'll still make a big play," says junior offensive tackle Brent Warren. "He's an offensive lineman's dream."
The same can be said of sophomore fullback Rob Konrad, who rushed for 433 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman last fall. The one gaping hole on offense is at wideout, a spot weakened by the departure of Marvin Harrison, who was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts. Kevin Johnson, a quarterback-turned-wide receiver, and true freshman Quinton Spot-wood, will combine to replace Harrison.
Returning to a defense that ranked fourth in the Big East against the run is Antwaune Ponds, a 6'1", 241-pound linebacker, Donovin Darius, a 6'1", 206-pound free safety who is one of the biggest hitters in the conference, and senior cornerback Kevin Abrams, who is not only a sticky man-to-man defender but also a font of wisdom. Abrams was a redshirt in 1992, when the Orangemen were 10-2 and won the Fiesta Bowl. Expectations soared, but two disappointing seasons followed. "I've seen all the peaks and valleys," says Abrams. "You have to play every down. You have to earn it. Our goal last year was to get the program back where it used to be. We did that."
Well, expectations are high again. And the lights are on. Here is a team that can handle both.